ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. --
|The NHL Facilities Operations Manager Dan Craig, right, speaks with Zamboni driver Rich Arcangel at Ralph Wilson Stadium as preparations continue for New Year's Day's AMP Energy Winter Classic.
With the wind whipping through their hair and the 70,000-plus fans staring at their every twist and turn, it will be hard for Rich Arcangel and Jim Bender to ignore the magnitude of the moment.
As long as they don’t miss a turn, lose their water, or blow a tire, everything will be fine because as important as Sidney Crosby and Ryan Miller are to the AMP Energy NHL Winter Classic on New Year’s Day (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio), the Zamboni drivers are just as essential.
Arcangel and Bender drive at every Sabre home game at HSBC Arena, but that’s a climate controlled environment with 18,000 fans in the stands and a local cable TV audience watching at home.
The NHL Winter Classic is expected to shatter the NHL attendance record and is being broadcast live throughout the United States and Canada.
“Your original thought is there are going to be about 18,000 people looking at it, but this time it looks like 82 million people are going to be looking at it,” Bender told NHL.com. “It will be a little bit different as far as a viewing audience. Hopefully, I don’t choke when I’m driving.”
Bender and Arcangel are part of the staff, led by HSBC Arena’s Assistant Chief Engineer Brian Drabek, which has worked with NHL Facilities Operations Manager Dan Craig on numerous Stanley Cup Playoff games in Buffalo.
While Craig admittedly isn’t sleeping much these days, he hasn’t lost any of his limited shut-eye time worrying about Arcangel, Bender and the entire HSBC Arena crew that has been on site developing the ice since Thursday.
“It’s not a game, it’s an event and when they get up there they are in the middle of the event, in the middle of the hurricane,” Craig told NHL.com. “The Zamboni is a magnet, and I feel very proud of being able to have a local group as talented as they are being the support group for the National Hockey League for this event.”
Bender and Arcangel took the Zamboni on the ice for the first time Sunday morning at 11:30 for a dry run. They flooded the ice for the first time about an hour later, and planned to continue flooding at various times throughout the day and night.
“The pride and joy, you can see it in their eyes,” Craig said. “That’s why I have said everyday that they’re here; ‘Remember, this is your rink. You’re operating this rink on behalf of the National Hockey League and the Buffalo Sabres. This is your home game. Do what you do at home.’ ”
That’s the plan, but Bender and Arcangel know driving in Tuesday’s environment will be as unique as it gets for their profession.
“This is definitely something I’m more excited to do,” said Arcangel, who said his family will be in attendance Tuesday. “This isn’t your average game.”
“Actually it’s quite a pat on the back,” Bender added. “The NHL could have picked anybody for this. It is a Sabre home game, but it’s an NHL event.”
Neither driver expects the elements to be overwhelming, be it wind or snow, both of which are forecasted for New Year’s Day.
“It’s the same job,” Bender said.
They also aren’t worried about losing focus while staring out into the crowd.
“Just like (at HSBC Arena), you really shouldn’t think about it,” Arcangel said. “You should be looking at the ice, what you’re cutting, your water and how it’s setting up. You should be so focused on your job that you’re not gazing around and missing turns.”
Even so, there are challenges to driving outside.
“It’s really different because now you’re open,” Craig explained. “These guys are good enough that within three times of being on that surface they’ll be fine, but the first time out it’s getting your bearings and turning, coming around and shooting to the other end. You have to find your straight lines and make sure your turns are tight.”
Getting on and off the ice is tricky, too.
BaAM Productions, the project management company overseeing the construction here, had to build ramps for the Zamboni to get to the playing surface, which is on what Craig called “a box.” It’s a step up from the ground level, and then the ice is another short step down.
“For a normal rink you just drive straight out. Here you have to go up a ramp and then down a ramp because of all the pipes,” Craig said. “In a normal building the pipes are buried in the floor. Here we have to get over them to get into the rink.”
Just a few minor obstacles for a set of experienced drivers eager to show off their talent to the hockey world.
“Everybody loves the Zamboni. In fact, I think half the people come just to watch the Zamboni, but we are focused on what we have to do,” Bender said. “I’ve seen guys come in and they get stage fright. They get out there and realize how many people are looking at them and they freeze. As long as you’re focused and what you’re doing, everything is fine. And, you try to avoid distractions, which will be tougher here.”
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com.